Sunday, September 13, 2009

Match Report: Liverpool 4 - 0 Burnley

Liverpool's season is firmly back on track after a Yossi Benayoun hat-trick left promoted Burnley overwhelmed.

The top-flight new boys had started the season so well with wins over Manchester United and Everton but have now suffered successive defeats at Chelsea and now Liverpool - conceding seven in the process.

They could not live with a vibrant Liverpool, who kept up an impressive high tempo throughout and are slowly wiping away the memory of those two early league defeats to Tottenham and Aston Villa.

Benayoun scored his first from the edge of the box, and saw his shot parried by the overworked Brian Jensen for Dirk Kuyt to add the second before the break.

Steven Gerrard's pass set up Benayoun for his second, a close-range tap-in, before the Israeli was sent clear by substitute Andriy Voronin for his third and Liverpool's fourth.

Rafael Benitez made two changes from the side which won at Bolton a fortnight ago, with Martin Skrtel returning to central defence in place of Greece international Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

With Javier Mascherano suffering a muscle injury while on international duty with Argentina and not arriving back until late Friday, Benayoun came into the side.

And what a tremendous impact he made, with a goal and a display of running power that Burnley never came to terms with.

The Clarets, in their first league visit to Anfield for 33 years, retained the side that lost at Chelsea last time out, with new loan signing David Nugent - a former Liverpool trainee - on the bench.

The absence of Mascherano meant that Steven Gerrard played in a much deeper role, alongside Lucas in the centre of midfield, with Benayoun and Kuyt left to play just behind Fernando Torres.

Burnley started brightly with Martin Paterson firing wide from the edge of the box, while Kuyt produced a low shot at the other end that produced the first of many saves by Jensen.

Liverpool slowly built up possession, moving the ball quickly and Torres saw a curling 20-yard shot clear the far post.

But Burnley had Steven Fletcher and Paterson interchanging positions up front and the visitors were quick and dangerous on the break.

Liverpool's best early chance came when Emiliano Insua's chip was headed a foot wide by Benayoun, the beginning of a purple patch from the 29-year-old.

The lively Israel captain broke the deadlock with a gem of a goal after 27 minutes.

He surged from midfield, turned away from Graham Alexander and moved into the box to fire across Jensen and into the bottom corner.

Benayoun almost added another a minute later when he met Albert Riera's cross with a low header that Jensen blocked, the Burnley goalkeeper also keeping out Kuyt's follow-up.

Jensen had to keep out drives from Benayoun and Lucas before Paterson forced his way past Gerrard to unleash a rising drive that was held by Jose Reina.

But Liverpool went further ahead after 40 minutes with a dynamic five-man break from defence.

Torres and Insua combined to set up Benayoun for a 20-yard shot that Jensen blocked, but only as far as Kuyt who clipped home from five yards.

The increasingly busy Jensen had to produce the save of the half to keep out a Gerrard 20-yard drive before the break.

Liverpool kept up their assault after the interval with Riera seeing two efforts blocked while Jensen saved from a Kuyt flick.

Stephen Jordan was booked for a block on Torres before Burnley sent on Chris Eagles to replace Robbie Blake.

Torres was starting to stretch a tiring Burnley defence by now and only Tyrone Mears' fine saving tackle stopped the Spaniard in full flow.

But after 61 minutes Torres' pass played in a fiercely determined Gerrard, who battered his way past two men in the box to find Benayoun on the far post for a tap-in.

Liverpool sent on Swiss defender Philipp Degen for Glen Johnson and Voronin for the hard-running Kuyt, the game well won by now, and Burnley responded by giving Nugent his debut for Paterson.

Benayoun had an effort ruled out for offside and Gerrard forced his way through again to hit a post, before David Ngog took over from Torres.

There was still time for Benayoun to secure his hat-trick after 81 minutes. Voronin's pass sent him clear in the box - played onside by Jordan - and he side-footed the ball past an exposed Jensen.

Eagles was booked for a foul on Benayoun, Jensen saved again from Gerrard and Voronin missed when clear, with Burnley just wanting it all to end.

Benitez Targets Smooth Passage

Rafael Benitez insists Liverpool must hit the ground running when they open their Champions League campaign on Wednesday against Hungarian newcomers Debrecen in a Group E match at Anfield.

The Reds chief has underlined the importance of a winning start in Europe to avoid needless pressure in the club's domestic campaign, and to boost their coffers.

He recalled the situation two seasons ago when Liverpool lost their opening two group matches to Marseille and Besiktas and caused themselves dreadful problems in qualifying for the next stage - with the side winning only five of nine Premier League games during that fraught period.

That season they struggled to finish fourth in the league. Last term, when Liverpool won both their opening group matches, they ended the season as runners-up after a far less frantic campaign.

Benitez also underlined the importance, in terms of cash, of Liverpool progressing to the latter stages.

He said: "Money is important to us and it is also important for the name of this club to see us progressing to the final stages. This season, especially, it is very important.

"We always know we must start well in the group, to win your first match and then to analyse the match between the other two teams in the group, Fiorentina and Lyon.

"We lost our first game a couple of seasons ago against Marseille. That caused us a lot of problems and it was hard to qualify from the group.

"We must start well, the first game is vital. We must be in control of the group straight away because we then go to Florence next and Fiorentina will be tough, all Italian teams are tough at this level."

Last season Liverpool were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Chelsea after a remarkable 4-4 second-leg draw at Stamford Bridge, a result that still hurts Benitez.

He added: "The Champions League is a special competition, particularly for this club.

"You always want to win and the way we went out of the tournament last season in those games with Chelsea is still a disappointment that I feel, and the players too.

"It is always important to progress in Europe, you lose and it becomes a big problem.

"You lose confidence and you lose money. This season we face teams we have not played in Europe before and Debrecen is a club appearing for the first time.

"That will be a concern for us. We do have some reports and information but we do not know too much about them at the moment.

"But I will soon have more reports and videos to watch. It is important that we make a good start in the competition."

For Debrecen, this is a step into the unknown; their first match in the Champions League proper after becoming the first team from Hungary to qualify for the group stage since Ferencvaros in 1995-96.

Debrecen won five of their six games in qualifying, including away at Levadia Tallin and Levski Sofia, but they know they face a much tougher test at Anfield.

Liverpool are competing in their sixth successive group-stage campaign and not once have they failed to reach the last 16.

For Debrecen, this is the second time they have visited England in the competition, and they will hope to fare better than the previous occasion, when they lost 3-0 to Manchester United in a third qualifying round tie in August 2005 - the first instalment of a 6-0 aggregate defeat.

There are four survivors in Debrecen's squad from that last visit to the north west. Tibor Dombi played while Csaba Bernath, Zoltan Kiss and Adam Komlosi were on the bench. Kiss and Dombi featured in the return.

Liverpool’s £80m Shirt Deal Equals Biggest Ever

Liverpool have secured a new shirt sponsorship deal that equals the most lucrative in football history after signing a four-year agreement with Standard Chartered, the London-based international bank, worth £80 million over four years.

With their present deal with Carlsberg due to expire in mid-2010, Liverpool’s commercial department, headed by Ian Ayre, has been looking for a money-spinning agreement in keeping with the club’s status as one of the most recognisable brands in world sport. Until July, an exclusivity accord with Carlsberg prevented them from entering into talks with any other interested parties but once that had expired, Liverpool moved swiftly to tie up a new deal.

Carlsberg has enjoyed a 17-year relationship with Liverpool, one of the longest-running associations in world sport, but was unwilling to match the £20 million a season offer made by Standard Chartered, which equals the deal struck by Manchester United with Aon Corp, the American financial giant, in June.

Liverpool have long been criticised by their supporters for punching below their weight when it comes to commercial opportunities but the sponsorship deal struck by Ayre, the commercial director, is an indication that the club are beginning to make the most of their glittering history and worldwide fan base.

The fact that the Merseyside club have secured a sponsorship arrangement on a par with United’s is also hugely symbolic, with Liverpool having trailed some way behind their North West rivals for several years in terms of commercial enterprise. Liverpool’s deal with Carlsberg, for example, is worth just £7.2 million per annum, a figure that fell short of United’s £14 million income from AIG, the American insurance corporation.

The deal with Standard Chartered will be confirmed by Liverpool imminently, with George Gillett Jr., the club’s co-owner, having admitted during a radio interview that he expects a formal announcement to be made on Friday. “I think people will be pleased and surprised,” Gillett said. “It will be one of the great, worldwide corporations. And I think it will be a sponsor people will be pleased and surprised to be [associated with].”

For the first time since he bought Liverpool along with Tom Hicks in February 2007, Gillett has admitted that he could be willing to sell the club “if someone gets beamed in who’s got bags of money”.

But the revelation was tempered by the American’s admission that he would “probably” be at the helm for the long term.

“The club is in outstanding shape,” Gillett said. “Economically, it’s never been stronger. We just paid down our debt very substantially. We have less debt per dollar than any club in the league.”

Liverpool, meanwhile, have sealed a £250,000 deal with Southend United for the transfer of Michael Ngoo, a 16-year-old centre forward who was also being watched by Manchester United. Ngoo, who is 6ft 4in and has been likened in style to Peter Crouch, impressed during a recent trial with United but Liverpool have beaten their North West rivals to his signature after meeting Southend’s asking price.

In a departure from the recent furore surrounding the transfers of a number of teenagers, the deal for Ngoo has not resulted in acrimony between Liverpool and Southend, with the Coca-Cola League One club praising their Barclays Premier League counterparts for the way negotiations were conducted.

Jamie Carragher Eager To Complete Medal Collection With Premiership

One month and two defeats into the season, the clock is already audibly ticking on Liverpool’s championship challenge.

But for at least one of Rafael Benitez’s squad, there is extra incentive to beat the sands of time.

As a mainstay of the Anfield effort since making his debut back in January 1997, Jamie Carragher has played an integral role in all subsequent triumphs.

Yet a medal haul that includes the European Cup, UEFA Cup, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Super Cup still has one notable, gaping omission.

And at the age of 31, the Anfield vice-captain admits to having dwelled on possibly not being around long enough to in appear in what he is convinced will soon be the inevitable – a title-winning Liverpool team.

“It is at the back of my mind but Liverpool is about winning things now – that’s what we want, as well as in the future,” says Carragher. “Rafa can’t be thinking ‘I have to win the league for Carra’, he’s doing it for the club, as well as building for future seasons.

“I’m sure we will get there in the end, whether it’s with me or without me. It’s important this club gets back to winning titles, but for Liverpool, not just me, even though on a personal level I would love to do it.

“I’ve been lucky enough with what I have won now, and really grateful for it, but obviously I want to win that Premier League. If not, then I have still won lots of trophies, but the main thing is seeing Liverpool win titles, whether I’m here or not.”

Having already retired from international football to help prolong his club career, Carragher faces strong competition for a centre-back berth this season with Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and new arrival Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

But the defender says: “I think the whole squad is under pressure for positions now. Rafa’s always liked a big squad, with two for each place.

“Teams change around a lot now, and some people say our squad is still not big enough, but I think we have a strong one.”

The early-season defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa have quelled the expectation this could be Liverpool’s year to end a title drought that stretches back to 1990.

Benitez’s men have already lost as many league games as they did in the whole of last season, but Carragher is convinced there remains plenty of time to overcome that slipshod start.

“What we have to do is stay focused, and I’m old enough and mature enough not to listen to everything others say,” he says. “We’re aware we’ve lost two of the first four, when we only lost two all year last time, but it’s not how many you win or lose, it’s how many points you get.

“In the last two seasons we have lost less games than Manchester United, and they won the league twice, so that proves the point. But if you keep losing games, you keep losing points, and we have to put that right.

“We have to make sure we don’t worry about other teams. Hopefully that’s something we can learn from last season – don’t think about them, just do your own stuff.

“With 10 games to go last season we were five or six points behind United and people were saying we had a great chance of winning the league. We’re six points off the top now and have 34 games to go.

“If we have that many left, rather than just ten, obviously we have much more chance of making it up, but we are still in the title race, no doubt about it.”

Each of the seven goals Liverpool have conceded this campaign have come from set-pieces, reopening the tiresome debate over Benitez’s zonal marking system.

Carragher has his own view on the shortcoming, and says: “We’ve conceded our goals at set pieces this season, but I don’t think that’s down to a lack of understanding. It’s maybe that we haven’t attacked the ball, lost a runner or something. The whole team comes back defending in the box and if one man doesn’t do their job, the ball’s in the back of your net.

“It’s not about the new players because in general play we have been fine, but it’s obviously something we have to improve on.

“People always say when you man mark you know whose fault it is when the goal goes in. But because we know the zonal system a bit better than you guys, we know who’s at fault when someone’s not done their job, and we talk about that on the training ground to put it right.

“It’s easy to point the finger at man marking, but we are aware of where things have gone wrong and on Saturday we have to put it right.

“We’ve been using that system for a long time so everyone should be comfortable with it. Personally I’ve been doing it for five or six years with the manager, and for a few of them we’ve had one of the best records in the Premiership. It’s about players wanting to head the ball and being aggressive in the box.”

Reina Plays Down Liverpool's Title Chances

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina insists winning the Premier League is "not a realistic objective" with the current squad of players, some of whom are becoming frustrated at Anfield.

Although the Reds finished second last year and were hoping to go one better this season, ending their search for a first Premier League title, Reina thinks Liverpool lack the match-winners to do so.

After a mixed start to the current campaign, including two defeats from their first four outings, Spain international Reina has voiced his doubts about the depth of the playing staff.

"We all want to win the league but right now it's not a realistic objective," he told The Guardian. "There isn't frustration, there's resignation. We know what's in the squad; we can't do anything about it. All we can do is roll our sleeves up, work hard and try to win matches.

"Teams like Manchester United have lots of players who can tip the balance; we haven't got the individuals. There are games that get congested and we haven't got the vision other sides boast. There is a problem."

Reina also suggested that it was the responsibility of the club's American co-owner George Gillett and Tom Hicks to improve Liverpool's chances by freeing up further funds.

"It would be good if the owners made an effort economically," he added. "It would be lovely if we found ourselves in an economic position where we can bring in players and build a squad that can compete with other sides.

"But it's up to the owners to try to bring players in, not us."

Ryan Babel Needs To Repay Faith Rafael Benitez Has Shown In Him

The fly on the wall in Rafa Benitez’s office at Melwood on Thursday will certainly have a story to tell.

Ryan Babel had some serious explaining to do following his return from international duty.

The Dutchman’s outburst while he was away with his national side was as ill advised as it was nonsensical.

Benitez has shown remarkable faith in a player who has repeatedly flattered to deceive since he arrived on Merseyside for £11.5million from Ajax two years ago.

His first season offered real promise with 10 goals in 49 appearances – including memorable Champions League strikes against Arsenal and Chelsea.

But last season he failed to kick on and made only 13 starts with a further 29 outings off the bench.

The temptation to offload the 22-year-old this summer must have been great, especially as the manager needed to raise funds to make signings.

But Benitez decided to persevere with him and made a point on the tour of the Far East of taking every possible opportunity to talk up the winger.

The Reds boss believed this would finally be the season when Babel came good and realise his obvious potential. Instead it’s been a case of more of the same.

Babel had a big chance to shine at Spurs on the opening weekend of the campaign but he blew it.

Off the pace and showing an alarming lack of desire, it was no surprise to see him consigned to the bench for the clash with Stoke.

A brief cameo against Aston Villa followed before he didn’t even make the squad for the trip to Bolton.

Babel could have no complaints but he reacted by claiming Benitez had “broken promises” about more playing time this season.

The manager may well have told him he would have more chances to play but it’s fair to assume Babel made promises of his own, which he has failed to keep, about putting in a proper shift.

Admitting that he would be up for heading home on loan in January smacks of a player who lacks the stomach to fight for his place.

Benitez’s patience with the Dutchman must be wearing thin and Babel is likely to have copped a dressing down for his recent outburst.

However, the Reds’ tough schedule of six matches in the next 17 days means he is likely to get the chance to redeem himself.

Babel has some serious thinking to do. At Liverpool he has the stage to make history and become one of the Premier League’s hottest talents.

Alternatively, he could join the long list of flops who promised a lot and delivered little, and slip back into the relative ignominy of Dutch football.

What is clear is that Babel is now drinking in the last chance saloon at Anfield.

Pellegrino Backs Insua Call-up Hopes

Mauricio Pellegrino has backed Emiliano Insua to achieve his dream of being called up by the Argentinean national team.

After breaking into the Liverpool first-team last season, the 20-year-old left-back has started all four of the Reds' matches so far this term.

Pellegrino has been delighted by the form of his compatriot - and believes there is much more to come.

"We are always thinking about whether a young player can be involved in the future because the gap between the reserves and the first-team is really thin," the Reds first-team coach told

"But it is difficult because to make this jump you require a lot of different circumstances for it to happen.

"You have to be ready and when Emiliano had the opportunity to play, his performances were really good.

"Now he is involved in more games and is playing almost every match.

"Emiliano will be a really important player in the future. He is young and can progress a lot. The best is yet to come from him, but now he is working hard and I am sure he will improve."

Asked if he felt Insua could soon make the step-up to international level for Argentina, Pellegrino replied: "Yes. Liverpool are a big club and everybody in Argentina follows the Premier League. A lot of people in Argentina are talking about Emiliano and I don't see any reason why not."

Insua's first-team berth could soon come under pressure from Fabio Aurelio, with the Brazilian defender edging ever closer to full fitness following injury.

Pellegrino admits having the services of the 29-year-old available again will be a boost to Liverpool.

He said: "It is amazing news for us because Fabio is a good professional, has a lot of quality and we need him and all of the players in the squad.

"He has suffered a lot this year and been unlucky with injuries, but he has been working until three or four o'clock in the afternoon each day because he wants to be ready.

Why Liverpool Should Be Very Worried About The Challenge Of Tottenham And Manchester City This Season

You don't win anything in September but you can lose things and that is why the pressure is on at the top already.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez remains adamant that two defeats in the first four games - and that narrow squeak past Bolton - will not affect the Anfield outfit's hopes of finally ending that title drought.

But keeper Pepe Reina's admission that the Merseysiders are badly missing Xabi Alonso's midfield calmness will not ease the fears of the Liverpool fans.

The reality after those losses against Spurs and Aston Villa is that Benitez and Liverpool are under pressure for the next six weeks not to drop any more silly points or risk seeing Chelsea, United and Arsenal - and possibly City or Tottenham - pull too far clear of them for the gap to be made up.

Not what you want when you are already coping with the burden of Merseyside's desperation for that first crown since 1990.

Of course, any City fan who can remember their club's last championship will be in his or her late-40s and tomorrow is the first real test of what Mark Hughes is doing at Eastlands.

I think Hughes has bought brilliantly over the summer, especially the captures of Gareth Barry and the currently injured Roque Santa Cruz, with the really important fact being his decision to sign players with a knowledge and understanding of English football, rather than squandering his desert inheritance on a list of names to please the club's owners.

The City boss certainly sounds ready to take on Arsenal but this will be a proper gauge of the Eastlands outfit, and a Gunners side who need to bounce back after somehow conspiring to lost at Old Trafford two weeks ago.

United will be confident of ending Spurs' terrific start despite the probable return of Heurelho Gomes in goal - Harry Redknapp desperately needs the Brazilian rather than Carlo Cudicini - and good news over Sebastian Bassong.

And while Carlo Ancelotti admitted today he was entirely in the dark about the Gael Kakuta affair until it blew up in his face last week, he should cope with his trip into the unknown at Stoke, whose football is, as he conceded today, something he has never quite experienced in Serie A.

A Big Thank You From Michael Shields

I'd like to thank every reader, especially the many non-Liverpool fans, who have written to me with their support for Michael Shields during the past four years.

Hundreds of you got in touch to express your disgust at his treatment and to pass on your support to his family. I did, and they passed it on to him. And he has told me that it helped him get through the 1,562 nights he spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

To the other readers who told me I was chasing a lost cause and that Shields was as guilty as hell, I'm glad you've been proved wrong.

I've learned many lessons in the 12 years I've been writing this column. By far the most important is that football fans may be divided on a tribal basis, but when a clear injustice has been done to one of us, the majority rally round.

Michael Shields was a case of prejudice against an English football fan, pure and simple. I've said many times that had this been a middle-class teenager on a Gap Year who'd been fitted up abroad for a crime he didn't commit, he'd have been out within weeks of the non-evidence being put before the court.

But he was an English football fan. So he didn't matter.

I'm glad he mattered to so many of you, even though you have no time for the club he supports.

You helped him get through it. And he's asked me to thank you.